Kyle crossed the tunnel to where Jessie was crouched and looking at the salamander. “How are you holding out,” he asked her.
“Holding on?” She was trying to play dumb with the question, but she didn’t fool him. He could see the tense twitchiness in her posture and smell the scent of her revved up metabolism in the air. Still, he didn’t push. If she was in a place where she could lie about her mental state then it hadn’t degraded too far. That was good. Mostly it was good because her mental state hadn’t degraded, partially it was good because they all needed her up and fighting right now.
He’d been surprised when she’d first burst into the tunnel talking about water. Then he’d felt like a jerk for worrying her. Now he was just glad she was there and helping. “Alright, but don’t let it go too far. If you need to drop back and heal do it.”
“Yeah. Sure,” she answered without taking her eyes of the salamander. “So what’s the plan? We just run down there and try to jab it? Use the shield if things get too hot.”
Kyle darted a look back at the Children of Atlantis. They watching him and Jessie, so he covered by giving them his best confident nod. Then he leaned it close to Jessie, pointed up the hall at the salamander as though he was going to say something about it, and then pitched his voice low. “Not so much, no. When Lynn started talking about inventing a spell I had an idea; if I use the lux binding to invent a dark spell right on top of the salamander I should be able to hurt it. The most efficient way to darken that area is going to be stopping whatever it’s doing to make flame in the first place.”
Jessie kept her voice low, but she also gave Kyle a puzzled look when she responded. “Alright, so do that.”
“I’d like to get the salamander around the bend in the hall first. If the Children see what we’re doing they’re bound to ask what spell I used and I can’t risk giving them any more dangerous magic.”
“Finally you realize that.”
“OK,” Jessie hissed back, “so what’s the real plan?”
Kyle thought for a moment. “Um, OK, so I guess we run down the hall and poke the big lizard with a rock, then if things get too hot we’ll use the shield. However, we’ve got a much better plan if we can just push it around the corner.”
Kyle was expecting to get mocked for that, but Jessie’s spell came with a loyalty component. She nodded once sharply, and then set down the lantern she’d been carrying; presumably, that was so she’d have her hands free to fight. It’s light reached the end of the hall well enough. Kyle set down his own phone. It provided a bit more light though it wasn’t as though their target was hard to see being as it was on fire; mostly he didn’t want it fried.
Then Jessie said, “Let’s go,” and then darted off down the hall towards the salamander. Kyle jumped up and followed as fast as he could. It only took him a few seconds to get down the tunnel but that was enough time for several impressions to go through his head: it was insane to be running toward the monster, he must be feeling the way medieval soldiers did as they charged towards the melee, it was really exhilarating. And then the heat was so intense it felt like his skin was on fire, and Jessie was beside him, and the salamander was probably in reach, so he skidded to a halt tossed up his hand, and yelled, “Dùnpái!”
The half circle of green light snapped in place in front of them. Kyle staggered and drew in a couple of gasping breaths. Each one was so hot it felt like barbed wire in his chest. The shield only helped a tiny bit with heat. It turned momentum into heat, so a molecule hitting it from either side transmitted its heat through the twisted space perfectly. The net effect was zero change in the air’s conduction. However, it did stop air from moving through it, and that air mostly only hit other air, so at least convection was somewhat limited.
Jessie, on the other hand, never stopped moving. She danced to the edge of the shield, stabbed the stalactite as fast as a sewing machine’s needle passing through fabric, caught the salamander right in the eye, and pulled back. The whole move took less than a second.
It was surprisingly effective; the salamander screamed again – throwing its toothy maw wide and letting out a ululating wail. Then it followed that up with a blast of fire. The flames washed out and slammed into the front of the shield making the back of it glow like a iron freshly pulled from a forge. A strange sort of crackle passed around Kyle’s head, as his hair singed off. He looked down and realized his close and skin were now dry. He wouldn’t last much longer in this much heat.
His hair was short, so it was just gone in an instant. Jessie’s was longer, and a flame was actually burning in it. Kyle opened his mouth to say something about that, but before he could get any words out Jessie jumped on him. He overbalanced and fell backwards cracking his head on the stone wall. Then a few instants of time were gone and he was on the ground with flames roaring over him. For a moment’s worth of disorientation he wondered what had happened to the sky.
Then his brain sort of reset. He’d lost hold on his magic, and it felt like an ice pick was sticking out of the center of his forehead, but he knew where he was. He shouted at Jessie, “Your hair’s on fire: roll!”
She rolled off of him, and over a couple of times though the corridor wasn’t long enough and she had to move at an angle across it rather than down it to manage that. Still, it was enough. The remnants of her ponytail caught under her back and that was enough to put them out. Kyle looked back toward the salamander hoping he wouldn’t need to toss up another shield but the place where it had been was gone. The walls and floor were a dull cherry red, but there was no magical monster to be seen.
Jessie jumped up from the ground. Her eyes were wide, and her pupils were dilated. “After it?”
Hell no, Kyle thought. He actually said, “I guess.” Then he eyed the glowing floor. The salamander had stood in basically one spot the entire time. That whole section of tunnel was half way to melting and it was murderously hot just being as close to it as they were. Still, it was short stretch he thought he could get through and he knew Jessie could.
“Let’s wet ourselves first.”
“Right,” Jessie snapped, then ran back down the hall, grabbed her pack, and returned with it. They both grabbed bottles and poured them as evenly as possible over their bodies. There wasn’t enough water for a good soaking, but at least most of their clothes and skin were wet by the time they ran out.
Kyle needed his magic back, so he tried to clear his mind and focus on his surroundings. The tunnel was so hot painful. The walls were dull stone where they weren’t glowing stone. The smells in the air were best left undescribed: burnt hair, sulfur, and vanilla vodka. He thought he was going to vomit, but he pulled in a breath of the oven hot air and to his own amazement got a tiny bit of magic with it. He headache eased, but he knew he was only putting off the pain.
Kyle leaned down, then thrust a hand out in a blocking motion toward the floor and called, “Dùnpái!” A shield popped into being above the still glowing tunnel floor. He jumped on to that, ran across it as quickly as possible so it wouldn’t collapse under him, and then lept off the far edge, managing to clear the remaining glowing rocks, and land in an area that that salamander had simply walked over. That section of floor was hot enough he felt it through his shoes, and the plastic bottoms started to melt a bit, but nothing caught fire. He was counting that as a win at this point.
“Step back,” Jessie called. She had backed up down the tunnel enough to get a running start. When Kyle got out of her way she ran up it then jumped through the hot section balling up in mid air and staying well clear of the hot walls while making the entire thing look graceful. They were close enough to the corner that the salamander had come around earlier that Jessie was still in the air when she hit it, but she simply extended her feet and hands just in time, caught herself against the wall with them, and then dropped lightly to the floor. It was positively cat-like.
“How are you doing?” Kyle asked. He wasn’t entirely certain which source of harm he was asking about; the magic she was using, or the fight they were in.
“Some burns,” she answered, “my hands, back, head. ‘K otherwise. Good to fight. You?”
“Um, combat ready I guess. I think I might be burnt as well, and my head feels like it’s going to split open.”
“Can you still do magic. We’re out of sight of the others?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“What do you want me to do,” Jessie asked.
Kyle thought about that. He had the feeling that the binding would either work, or they’d both be dead in short order. He wasn’t sure how Jessie could change that equation. “I don’t know, throw something at it if it charges me. Maybe pray.”
They both crept down the tunnel. Instead of bending again, this one widened out into a big cave like chamber. The ceiling of the cave was covered in stalactites. These appeared to be quartz or some other translucent crystal, and they were all glowing. The ones at the edges of the room emitted a simple, soft, white light. The stalactites became longer as they moved in toward the center of the room, and the bigger ones rippled in rainbow colors. At the center of the room they touched the floor becoming a single crystal column. A vast image of the earth rotated inside that column wavering or growing cloudy here and there as it interacted with the material of the stone, but always clearly visible. This room, at least, was a little cooler though still far from comfortable.
“The salamander has got to be beyond that, doesn’t it,” Jessie asked.
“I suppose, although this must be the map room. Do you think you could get Alison past the super heated section of the tunnel? If you can, then maybe we don’t even need to keep fighting it.”
Jessie looked dubious, but she spun and took off down the hall anyway. Kyle wasn’t certain what she could do to get Alison into the map room, tuck her under one arm and then jump her over the hot stone? But maybe an idea would occur to one of the children.
He put that out of his mind. His job was to take care of the salamander if he could. To that end he edged along the walls so he could get an angle to see beyond the crystal pillar. The salamander was there. It had backed itself into a natural (well natural to the extent anything inside the Room could be called natural) alcove in the wall at the back of the cave. It was guarded by stone on three sides and its flames were roaring in front of it. It wasn’t letting anyone close enough to jab it again.
“You know, he called, I really don’t want to do this. If you’ve got any sort of intelligence calm down and let us pass!”
The salamander hissed and blew a gout of flame out that reached almost to the crystal pillar. The room got noticeably hotter. Oh well, Kyle thought, I tried.
Kyle started to sketch the bindings for a darkness producing version of lux in the air, and then realized he had a problem. Once they were drawn, he wouldn’t be able to move them. The bindings weren’t a spell, they weren’t the trigger for a spell, and they never had been. They were just raw magic doing what raw magic does. He could no more move them than he could will magnetic fields through the air. Yet if he didn’t have the binding right in the salamander’s fire when he set it off, it wouldn’t do any good. It would come up with a spell for absorbing completely mundane light and that would be that. It might hurt the salamander, but it probably wouldn’t for the same reason darkness spells had never hurt the humans he’d cast them on: it wouldn’t be the most efficient way to suck up light.
He swore under his breath and wracked his brain for a solution while the room grew hotter around him. Well, OK, first of all maybe he didn’t even need one. He wasn’t sure how the map worked, but he was hoping it was a simple touch interface. Maybe he could just run up, stab at some random point on the globe, and they’d be able to get out of the room.
Right, that made sense.
Kyle took several deep breaths even though the heat he sucked into his body as he did so made his throat dry. He shot a nervous look at the salamander, and then he sprinted for the map crystal. No good! As soon as the salamander saw him start to move for the crystal it blew out another gout of flame. Kyle’s eyebrows crisped off his face from the heat and the hysterical thought that if he survived this he’d be so smooth skinned he’d have to take up swimming flashed through his mind. He skidded to a halt. The crystal was wrapped in flame. There was no way he’d get to it.
He backed off and the salamander let its flames slack a little. It was a shame the darkness spells he could make with his anti-lux had nothing to do with heat. If he could cool the thing’s flames as effectively as he could suck up light then he’d be able to get close enough to it to do some good.
Wait a second, Kyle thought. Maybe I can make the spell suck up heat! Working quickly he stripped off his shirt and tossed it on the ground. It was already dry, which was good: water might have interfered with his new plan. He sketched the anti-lux binding in the air right over it as small as he could make it. Then he flipped open his hand and said, “Flash!” The light spell he’d attached to that particular trigger popped into being. He sent it down below the shirt, and slowly filled it with power so the stone would heat. It didn’t take long, first the shirt smoldered and then it caught fire.
The shirt didn’t burn well. Like most modern fabrics it was flame retardant, and what it broke into was more of a smoky smolder than a good flame. The smoke was foul smelling and would probably give him cancer if he was lucky enough to live that long, but down in it, poking right through the threads of his binding, there was a single tongue of flame. Kyle set his jaw, gathered a bit more magic, and then jabbed his finger into the flame and the binding and let it go as quickly as possible.
He picked up a burn for that, but it was worth it because it got the spell going. A small point of blackness rolled out of the center of the binding. He gave it a bit more power to keep active and it floated in the center of the flame. It looked like a little black marble. Whatever the spell was doing it would be preventing the flame from making light at the molecular level. It couldn’t just absorb the light, because the original structure of modified space-time had a granularity far lower than molecular widths. Absorption wouldn’t have worked to prevent light flow because there wouldn’t have been any space to do that absorption.
Unfortunately, Kyle had to simply hope that the spell was preventing the flame from making heat. That wasn’t a given. It could have shifted the emission spectra of the fire, or moved the temperature at which air luminesced up, or… Well any of a number of things actually. The only reason he had any grounds for hope was none of those things would prevent photons that were already in the air from striking the original binding. The spell would have to be a more esoteric effect than that. The simplest such esoteric effects would just generally dampen all energy.
Kyle set his teeth again. The only way to know if the spell had really worked was to poke it, and that might mean another burn, or something worse if the spell if the spell was harmful to humans. He bent down then reached forward very slowly with his pinky finger extended stopping just as it entered the spell.
It was cool. No, it was cold. Like touching ice. He withdrew his finger rapidly. It felt normal after it left the spell. He poked the pad where it had been inside the magic, that felt normal to. “Oh well,” Kyle mumbled, “if I wanted to be cautious I should have started weeks ago.”
He fed the spell power. It grew and he shaped it into a big slice of darkness stretching across the cave stopping just before the glowing stalactites but bleeding into the walls and the floor. It took a lot of power. Almost more than he could manage as drained as he was, but where it passed the air and stone were cool. As he moved it past the map crystal he split it in half. He wasn’t certain how it would interact with the spell on the cave, but he wasn’t going to risk killing their exit, but as soon as it was clear he closed it up again and sent it arrowing in at the alcove where the salamander was hiding.
The salamander apparently didn’t like that. It blasted flame at the darkness heading toward it. Kyle couldn’t see it of course, but he knew what was happening because what had been an unsustainable power bleed suddenly became a sliced vein.
With all of his concentration devoted to keeping the magic intact Kyle fell to his knees. Pain pulsed in his head as the charge that had been holding his headache at bay almost vanished. “I’m holding him. Get in here,” he called as loudly as he could. However, given the state he was in, he wasn’t certain that was loudly enough to be heard back in the tunnel.
He closed his eyes focusing on keeping the power going with everything he had. Behind his eyelids he found, not darkness, but rather the vast glowing river of power he’d always been taught to focus on when trying to summon magic. It was still a flood as wide and deep as the universe; endless golden light in which the cosmos floated like a single twig. He tried to form mental hands to scoop it up like he had in the past but this time that didn’t work. He was a hole in the flood, a drain-plug that had been pulled. Every bit of power he could focus swirled through him and out into the spell he was still holding. Still, that flow of power helped him keep the spell running, helped him push back the pain in his head just a bit.
He opened his eyes and got a strange double image. He could see the inside of the cave with it’s glowing crystal ceiling and map pillar in the center. He could see the slice of blackness that blocked his view of the salamander and kept the cave at a livable temperature. He could smell the mixture of nasty odors in the cave, and feel the rocks cutting into his knees. He heard what he hoped was footsteps coming through the tunnel behind him.
Then, beyond that, was the golden river of power. The vast well of magic that rolled and twisted under reality. That, he could almost see it now, was reality somehow. If the 4d universe was the membrane of a 5d super-universe then magic was a part of that greater reality somehow- a way of deforming the membrane.
Or maybe he was just burning his brain to ash and these were the dying sparks of thought.
Kyle made a sound for which there is no word, a sort of a cross between a yell, a groan, and a growl. It sounded like a woman giving birth or a Viking berserker yanking a spear out of their own guts so they could stab it through one last enemy. With that, he pushed the spell down into the salamander.
It fought like a devil fresh from some fiery underworld but it wasn’t quite strong enough. The wedge of black became a small sphere of black wrapped all around and through it. The salamander pulsed its magic as hard as it could. Kyle drank more of the golden river and for just an instant he thought he saw 5d space. It was like pushing his head through the fabric of the world: a cartoon man climbing off of its page.
The salamander ran out of power. The resistance collapsed beneath Kyle, and he fell into the blankness of a white page. It looked sort of like a stone cave floor rushing up at him for just an instant, and for a moment it felt like a golden river of power catching fire and exploding behind his eyes. Then, blissfully, it felt like cool rock with footsteps and blackness rushing toward him.